Trump picks golf club, Mar-a-Lago members as ambassadors
WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump needed an ambassador to represent the United States in Romania, he enlisted a real estate lawyer who was a member of one of his private golf clubs.
For South Africa and the Dominican Republic, he tapped longtime members of his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. To represent the U.S. government in Hungary, he chose a man from another Florida club operated by the president’s private companies.
Ambassadorships long have been among Washington’s choicest political prizes, and presidents frequently award them to friends, political allies and campaign donors.
“There was always a country club mentality with some of this,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that investigates government ethics.
The difference is that the president also is the country club’s proprietor, and he has handed out foreign postings and other government jobs to his paying customers.
Membership rolls of Trump's clubs are not public. USA TODAY identified members through interviews, news accounts and a website golfers use to track their handicaps.
Since he took office, Trump has appointed at least eight people who identified themselves as current or former members of his club to senior posts in his administration. USA TODAY identified five of those appointees in mid-2017, prompting criticism from ethics watchdogs that the selections blurred the boundary between Trump's public duties and his private financial interests.
Since then, Trump has appointed three other members as ambassadors in Europe and Africa. One has been confirmed by the Senate.
The White House declined to comment on how the administration selected them to represent the U.S. government in foreign capitals.
Federal ethics rules don’t prohibit the president from nominating his customers or his members from accepting. Neither government ethics lawyers nor the lawmakers who must approve the nominations traditionally question whether would-be members of the administration have private business relationships with the president.
Becoming a member of one of Trump's clubs can require initiation fees of $100,000 or more, plus thousands more a year in dues – though the amounts vary widely. The money goes to Trump’s private company. That firm is held in a trust during his presidency, but Trump is its sole beneficiary, entitled to withdraw money from it whenever he chooses.
Trump’s U.S. golf clubs alone brought in about $600 million in 2015 and 2016, according to his financial disclosure reports. It is unknown how much of that is profit because, unlike recent presidents, Trump has not released his tax returns.
The three members Trump nominated to ambassadorships last year joined the clubs long before Trump sought the presidency. They declined to answer questions about their memberships or how Trump came to nominate them.
Lana Marks, a luxury handbag designer Trump nominated last year as ambassador to South Africa, grew up in that country but moved away more than four decades ago. She has spent most of her career building a business around bags that can cost $10,000 or more.
Marks declined to answer questions about her nomination, her qualifications or her membership in Mar-a-Lago, a short drive from her Palm Beach home. Instead, she said she was “tremendously honored that I can use my knowledge of the people and culture of South Africa to serve the United States.”
The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Pretoria since 2016. Relations between the two countries briefly became tense last year after Trump instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large-scale killing of farmers,” citing a report from Fox News.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Trump’s comment was “completely misinformed.”
Trump nominated Adrian Zuckerman, a New York real estate lawyer, to be the U.S. ambassador to Romania last year. Zuckerman registered his golf handicap through Trump’s club in Bedminster, New Jersey, a service the club said is available only to members. Scores he posted on a public website show he played at the club eight times in 2017 on days when Trump was visiting. (He posted scores of 83 to 100 on those days.)
Shortly after he was nominated, The New York Law Journal revealed that a legal secretary at Zuckerman's firm had named him in a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2008, alleging that he used graphic language in the office and spoke to her about his sex life. The lawsuit was settled the following year.
Zuckerman did not respond to requests for comment about his nomination or membership.
The Senate ended 2018 without confirming either Marks or Zuckerman. Trump renominated both of them in January.
Trump nominated David Cornstein as ambassador to Hungary. Cornstein and his wife, Sheila, both registered their golf handicaps through Trump’s club in West Palm Beach.
The Senate confirmed Cornstein to the post in 2018. Cornstein had worked as the chairman of a high-end jewelry company, and for years, he ran the semi-private corporation in New York City that operates betting on horse races. He later served on the board of a company that buys jewelry and ran a small wealth management company. He declined to comment about his golf club membership through a spokesman for the embassy in Budapest.
Since taking the job, Cornstein has been a vocal defender of Hungary's government as its human rights record came under attack. He failed to win an agreement to prevent Prime Minister Viktor Orban from expelling an American university that had operated in the country for more than two decades.
Watchdog groups that monitor government ethics said the nominations reflect a troubling intersection between Trump’s private business interests and his role as the nation’s chief executive.
“You have to question whether these members of his clubs are getting these appointments because they deserve them or because they’re his paying customers,” said Jordan Libowitz, the communication director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has been sharply critical of Trump’s decision to retain ownership of his businesses while in the White House. “You get into really bad territory when people start wondering if the president has put the government up for sale.”
Early in his administration, Trump signaled his intent to nominate other Mar-a-Lago members to foreign posts. He didn’t follow through.
Patrick Park told The Palm Beach Post that he received a handwritten note from Trump promising to name him ambassador to Austria. Brian Burns told The Boston Globethat Trump offered to make him the top diplomat to Ireland. Neither has been nominated.
The new spate of foreign service nominations aren’t the only place in which Trump’s administration intersects with his customers.
Trump named Callista Gingrich, a longtime member of his Virginia golf club and wife of former House Speaker and Trump confidant Newt Gingrich, as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. He chose Robin Bernstein, a founding member of Mar-a-Lago, as ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Both were confirmed by the Senate.
He named three otherclub members to jobs in the administration: Adolfo Marzol, former director of a mortgage insurance firm, as a senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Washington lawyer Barry Nigro, a Washington lawyer, as second in command of the Justice Department's antitrust arm; and Andrew Giuliani, the son of Trump's private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to a public liaison post.
That tally that doesn’t include his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who work at the White House and are members of Trump’s West Palm Beach club.
An investigation by USA TODAY in 2017 found that dozens of lobbyists and top executives for companies that hold government contracts are members of the clubs he has visited most frequently – in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia – which could put them in close contact with the president in exchange for payments that enrich him personally.
Contributing: Steve Reilly, John Kelly and Fredreka Schouten